A planting season plagued with pounding rains, cool temperatures followed by gusting winds and further complicated by early, increased weed and insect pressure, has fourth-generation farmer Jon Whatley describing 2019 as a tough year. “I’ve replanted more this year than I’ve replanted in the last 10 years,” states Whatley who’s farmed in the Texas Coastal Bend since 1993.
Actually, Whatley would say the last two years have been hard, making the words of his father Robert Whatley, so poignant, “You’ve got to make today better than yesterday.”
“2017 was good, 2018 was terrible and now here we are in 2019,” says Whatley. “We have a broad spectrum of issues. Where we were cold, the cotton didn't set fruit early. We had the heavy rains. I had one field, where I planted, and it just cracked the ground and then we got two inches of rain. Wind. Boom. Gone. There wasn’t enough for a stand, so I replanted it. Right after that, I got two inches of rain. Wind. Boom. Gone. Then I planted it a third time. It's really late.”
On the coast, late cotton is known as hurricane cotton. “It’s going to be ready to harvest in the middle of September about the time we normally get a tropical storm, or something roll in. We're taking a big gamble with this late cotton, but it can work out, you never know,” says Whatley.
According to the South Texas Cotton and Grain Association, despite the weather conflicts, the Coastal Bend area, which is south of Houston to Kingsville and out to the Winter Garden area, is expected to produce over 700,000 acres of cotton. “The acreage is up this year by about six to 10 percent,” says Executive Director Jeff Nunley. “It looks promising.”
In 2018, the Coastal Bend area yielded about 1.2 million bales. In a discussion with the Gulf Compress, Nunley says last year they handled between 700,000 and 800,000 bales. “This year they’re thinking they may handle a million bales.”
As was the case with Whatley, many growers around the Corpus Christi area were forced to replant but Nunley says further up the coast, where most of the fields were wet from late August and September of 2018 until early March of this year, growers had little time to prepare. “None of the field work had been done on most of the country in the middle and upper coast until planting,” says Nunley. “We were all scratching our heads, wondering how they were going to get that done. And to their credit, it shows how resilient producers are when faced with impossible odds. They got it done.”
Though that area also has some prevent plant acres, Nunley says he doesn’t think it’s extensive.
Because of the weather issues along the coast both Nunley and Whatley describe the stages of the 2019 cotton crop as, “all over the board.”
Nunley, who stopped to take photos of cotton as he drove from the Rio Grande Valley back to the coast at the beginning of June, said the crop was in various stages. “There was four to six leaf cotton and then there was all the way up to cotton in full bloom. Sometimes it was side-by-side fields. I talked to one producer who said he’s got some of that within the same field. And it’s mainly because they had a good crop started, it was up, and then we had unbelievable winds, three or four weekends in a row, when guys were running sand fighters and rotary hoes.”
In addition to Whatley’s hurricane cotton, he says he’s got some early cotton he planted March 9, that survived and looks good.
“It was one of my fields that had been in strip till longer and had more organic matter. It was up before some of the big rains hit it.”
While Whatley is accustomed to dealing with early insect pressure such as fleahoppers and thrip, he says, this year with the abundant rainfall, it’s the weeds that also have him concerned. “Most guys use residual herbicides down here, but they just didn't work. They broke down this year. And when you needed to be in the field spraying, it was either 40 to 50 per mile hour winds or it was raining, so weeds have set back the crops as well.”
Whatley’s milo and corn crops have weathered the harsh conditions well, he says. “They’ve got their own struggles, too, but not like the cotton.
“The early stuff looks phenomenal. There’s no middle − it’s either early or late. The later stuff looks ok. It has a way to go. It could use a little bit more rain,” he says. “We had a period where it got dry. We got spotty rains last week, and we're hoping for a little more rain this week.”
Nunley echoes his sentiments. “We are going to have a tremendous grain crop, a tremendous corn crop. It was cool until about two weeks ago and it started getting hot, so the corn has had phenomenal growing conditions. I’m just not sure where we are going to put it all.”
Whatley, who can see the Corpus Christi port from his farm headquarters, says as he looks ahead he’s concerned about the markets. “We have a ton of money in this crop because of the replanting, the insects and the weed situation. And let's be honest, everybody talks about tariffs. We're extremely concerned about that. Our sorghum market is dead. We don't even know if we have enough elevator space to store all the sorghum because the port's not going to take any,” he says. “There isn’t a ship scheduled to take sorghum and usually by this time there's four or five scheduled. So, it's scary.”
As for the cotton market, he says he’s surprised with the cotton that’s been lost in Texas and Arkansas, plus the late start, that the market hasn’t responded. “Maybe it's the tariffs, maybe it's not. I don't know. But the market situation, what we are going to do with these commodities, is what has me the most scared. When I plug in 60 cents into a spreadsheet as opposed to 70 cents, there's a big difference.”
Despite the markets and this season’s challenges, Nunley says when looking at the Coastal Bend area as a whole, other than some spots which received too much rain or not enough, “This is probably one of the better crops I’ve seen in this region in a while. And the potential is good for a good crop.”